By Nick Cain
Steve Hansen should be a happy man. Normal business appears to have been resumed with New Zealand giving France a pasting, predictably winning the summer series 3-0 against Jacques Brunel’s hapless crew, while the Crusaders, the reigning Super Rugby champs, are sitting pretty at the top of the table with a home semi-final assured already.
However, the All Black coach still seems to be suffering from Lions tour withdrawal symptoms a year after the tumultuous tour which filled the the NZRU’s coffers to overflowing.
The glitch is that for all its benefits the drawn series against the Lions also left Hansen with the uneasy feeling that his side might not be as unassailable as results against the French, or New Zealand’s continued domination of Super Rugby, suggests.
Not only was the All Black triumphal march interrupted by the Lions, there was also a reminder this summer that the Irish – who provided key players to the Lions cause – are capable of sticking a spanner in the Southern Hemisphere works.
The Six Nations champions beating Australia on the other side of the Tasman Sea at the same time the French were being rolled over in New Zealand will have reminded Hansen that however good his side looks there are no guarantees.
Hansen appears edgy despite three victories over the French – two of them overwhelming – in which New Zealand clearly benefited from controversial refereeing decisions.
The first of them in the opening Test in Auckland saw French lock Paul Gabrillagues wrongly yellow-carded by RFU referee Luke Pearce for a seatbelt tackle on Ryan Crotty in which he made no contact with the New Zealand centre’s head or neck.
When the Frenchman was sin-binned on 50 minutes the scoreline was 11-11 with the home side not having things all their own way – however, the psychological blow to the French seemed overwhelming, with them conceding three tries in the next 10 minutes to trail 30-11 by the time Gabrillagues returned. They never recovered, failing to score again in a 52-11 defeat.
In the second Test in Wellington another debatable decision influenced the outcome with only 11 minutes played. Australian referee Angus Gardner ruled that he had no option other than to send off French full-back Benjamin Fall when his collision with Beauden Barrett, after chasing a high ball, had upended the New Zealand fly-half. Barrett was replaced by Damian McKenzie after failing an HIA.
Hansen was unhappy when a World Rugby judicial panel scrubbed the red card because Fall’s attempt to contest the ball had been compromised by a collision with New Zealand centre Anton Lienart-Brown, and that there had been nothing deliberately dangerous or reckless about his subsequent collision with Barrett.
Despite the 14-man handicap for 69 minutes the French played their best rugby of the series before going down 26-13 – but the Fall incident refused to go away with the All Black coach immediately rebuking World Rugby for setting a precedent by overruling the referee, “when Angus did everything by the book… and then they let him (Fall) off”.
By contrast, Hansen was much less vocal when a double tackle on French wing Remy Grosso, including a swinging arm by All Black openside Sam Cane and a head clash with prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, left him with a facial fracture which ruled him out of the rest of the series.
The only sanction for this was a penalty, and it did not take long before New Zealand were even further in credit on the officiating front. With the score at 14-14 with half an hour played in Dunedin in the final Test Irish referee John Lacy’s positioning from a scrum obstructed French scrum-half Baptiste Serin from making a potentially try-saving tackle on McKenzie, with the touchdown allowed to stand.
Once more a game that was in the balance was tipped towards New Zealand, and with the French again on the receiving end they were eventually overwhelmed 49-14.
Soon afterwards Hansen came out with a bizarrely timed homily about being on the wrong side of refereeing decisions, saying: “I can’t talk on behalf of the French, but we’ve had decisions like that go against us. You only have to go back to the second Test of last year’s Lions series.”
Hansen then revisited penalty decisions by French referees Jerome Garces and Romain Poite in the Lions 24-21 victory over the All Blacks in the second Test, and the 15-15 draw in the final Test of the series, which he claimed had gone against his side.
Hansen also moaned about the penaties conceded by prop Charlie Faumuina for a tackle on Kyle Sinckler when he was off his feet, and what to me was a blatant offside seal-off by Wyatt Crockett at a ruck. He also dusted off Poite’s decision not to penalise Lions hooker Ken Owens’ accidental offside after NZ No.8 Kieran Read’s illegal aerial challenge on Liam Williams at the end of the last Test.
While Hansen re-hash appears suspiciously like an attempt to put pressure on referees to recognise that the All Blacks do not get everything their own way – after a series against the French in which they did – it probably also masks concerns about a series in which his side were not tested in the way they were by the Lions.
McKenzie was able to run riot, with Barrett’s replacement dazzling against the depleted French – whereas a year ago against the Lions it was a different story. When McKenzie played for the Maori on a wet pitch in Rotorua he was swamped by the tourists, whose forwards dominated the game.
Set against that Hansen will be pleased with the way in which the front five of the Crusaders pack – Joe Moody, Cody Taylor, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett – who were transplanted into the All Blacks for all three Tests against the French, are ruling the roost in Super Rugby.
The Crusaders 45-22 victory over the Highlanders in Christchurch on Friday showed the enduring importance of having a dominant tight five, in a match in which the veteran Crockett – who came on early at loose-head for Moody – became the first player to reach 200 Super Rugby games.
However, one of the few times that the Crusaders and All Blacks tight five has faced a fierce examination in recent seasons was this time last year, when the Lions not only beat the Crusaders on their own patch but left New Zealand with plenty to ponder after the drawn series.
Hansen is clearly still pondering whether a series like that against the French is a false register compared with the Lions, and that their helping hand from match officials only magnifies it.